Can hydrogen help the UK reach net zero?

Hydrogen is a key component in the UK Government’s plan to achieve net zero, because it does not produce carbon dioxide. But what is hydrogen, how is it produced and do we have the technology we need to make it? 

What is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is a chemical element (National Grid). It’s contained in vast quantities in water, plants, animals and humans. Hydrogen gas, a natural gas, is scarce. 

We can make hydrogen artificially, but that requires energy. For example, the elements in water are H2O. That means water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. These need to be separated. 

Hydrogen & net zero

There are high hopes that clean hydrogen could be used to meet our goals for net zero. The UK Government has a ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ and using hydrogen is a key component. When hydrogen is burned, it does not produce carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). 

The fourth report into ‘the role of hydrogen in achieving net zero’ explores the different types of hydrogen production. 

Most hydrogen is currently processed using fossil fuels. This is called grey hydrogen. Grey hydrogen currently contributes 2% of global carbon emissions. 

Blue hydrogen is hydrogen that creates carbon emissions, which are then extracted and stored. This uses a system called Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS). The UK currently doesn’t have the technology to do this. 

Green hydrogen is hydrogen that is produced with renewable energy for electrolysis of the water to separate the elements. The UK does not have the capacity for large scale hydrogen production using renewable energy. 

We use the renewable energy we have to meet demand in our power supply. It is possible that renewable energy capacity could be increased in the future to make it sufficient for hydrogen production but that is unlikely in the short to medium term. 

Net zero hydrogen fund

The net zero hydrogen fund will invest up to £240m into low carbon hydrogen production technologies. The first round of funding was allocated to 15 projects around the UK, including Pembrokeshire, Northern Ireland, Cheshire, Suffolk, Lanarkshire, Oxfordshire and Inverness. 

Octopus Hydrogen won funding in March 2023. They plan to produce green hydrogen using their existing wind farm in Lanarkshire. Lanarkshire Green Hydrogen will produce over 3.5 tonnes of hydrogen a day with 15 megawatts of electrolysis. They’ll do this by directly connecting the wind farm and will use new software to optimise electrolyser usage. This scale of electrolysis has not previously been developed in the UK. 

“Scotland is a leader in generating wind power, making it a great place for our model of producing green hydrogen co-located with renewable energy. This entirely zero carbon production shows the role green hydrogen will play in helping to create a reliable, flexible greener grid.” – CEO and Co-Founder Will Rowe, Octopus Hydrogen

This week, SSE announced negotiations for funding on two projects; Aldbrough and Gordonbush. The two projects aim to produce blue & green hydrogen at an even bigger scale. 

Aldbrough is an existing gas storage site in East Yorkshire run by SSE Thermals. Aldbrough Hydrogen Pathfinder will be working on renewable hydrogen production, storage and power generation. It could be operational by mid decade which would make useful progress towards net zero. 

Gordonbush is an existing onshore wind farm in Sutherland that produces over 100 megawatts. SSE Renewables plan to produce and deliver green hydrogen through electrolysis at the site. It is another example of co-location of renewable energy sources and hydrogen production and has the potential to produce up to 1,300 tonnes of green hydrogen annually.

The UK will need to rapidly develop and deploy hydrogen production technology if hydrogen is to play any part in helping it achieve net zero targets by 2050. The fourth report concluded that it would require significant investment in projects and in the infrastructure needed to deliver it nationwide. 

Annette Clubley

Annette is a keen wildlife conservationist, mindful of sustainability and our impact on the environment. Outside of work, family is her focus and she loves teaching the next generation to enjoy the outdoors.